Seniors who want to give their hearts a healthy boost may want to focus on exercise first, a new study suggests.
The research found that getting active may do more for cardiovascular health in older adults than losing weight does.
"Any physical activity is positive for cardiovascular health, and in elderly people of all weights, walking, biking and housework are good ways to keep moving," study author Dr. Klodian Dhana said in a news release from the journal European Journal of Preventive Cardiology. The findings were published in the journal on March 1.
In the study, Dhana's team tracked 15-year outcomes for more than 5,300 people. Participants were between 55 and 97 years old, and free of heart disease when the study started.
Over the 15 years of follow-up, 16 percent of the participants developed heart problems.
In this group of older people, the researchers found no link between their body mass index (BMI) alone and heart disease. BMI is an estimate of body fat based on weight and height -- the higher the number, the more fat.
However, the study did find that physical activity was tied to a lower risk of heart disease, no matter what a person's BMI was.
"Overweight and obesity is associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease and it is recommended to lose weight," said Dhana, who is a postdoctoral researcher at Erasmus University Medical Centre in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.
However, "in the elderly this is slightly different because weight loss, especially unintentional, is associated with muscle loss and death," the researcher explained.
She said the study's authors aren't refuting the idea that overweight and obesity can raise heart risk in the general population.
But, "our results show that physical activity plays a crucial role in the health of middle age to elderly people," Dhana said. "Those who are overweight and obese without adequate physical activity are at higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease."
Expert guidelines currently recommend 150 minutes a week of moderate intensity physical activity to decrease the risk of heart disease, she said.
The U.S. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute offers a guide to physical activity.